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Tribulations of empire

In an age when "decolonization" has almost entirely dissolved the British, French, Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese empires and inflated the number of independent nations to more than 150, the Soviet Union alone retains, and indeed continues to expand, an enormous "colonial" empire -- that is, dominion over a heterogeneous collection of ethnic groups who do not consider themselves, and are not, Russians.

this empire, including the European states under Soviet domination since World War II, now extends from the Elbe River in Central Europe to the Behring Straits between Asia and North America, an area embracing more than one-sixth of the world land surface and 12 of the 24 world time zones. Among the ethnic groups of more than a million people incorporated in the empire, in addition to so-called Great Russians, are Ukrainians, Poles, Rumanians, Germans, Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, Uzbeks, Belorussians, Bulgarians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Moldavians, Lithunians, Tadzhiks, Turkmens, Kingiz, Latvians, and Estonians.

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The Soviet Union has been able to retain its empire, when all the other great powers were losing theirs, through a variety of fortuitous advantages. The most important is that the territories of the empire, unlike those of the British, French, and others, are entirely contiguous. This fact of contiguity has two advantages. Politically it gives the appearance of being more natural and legitimate than empires devided by thousands of miles of ocean. Militarily it enables rebellion, as in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to be more easily and inconspicuously suppresses.

Another significant advantage the Soviet empire has had is that, thanks to the prudence of Lenin and Stalin, it was from the beginning given at least the semblance of a federation, in which each of the componenrs has its own separate "republican" government and each is in theory equal to any of the others. Of course in practice all are totally subservient to the Soviet Communist Party and the Great Russians.

Nevertheless, these factors have enabled the Soviets to evade the demand of third- world nations, assiduously pressed against all the great powers, that they "decolonize." Even the relative recent acquisition of East European nations has not evoked much third- world protest, because these states were allowed to preserve ostensibly independent governments and because they were of the same race and color as their masters.

Even the colosal and "progressive" Soviet Union, however, cannot forever be immune to the workings of the spirit of the age. Empires of any kind are today obsolote, whether they are justified on grounds of national security or on dubious claims of "scientific" socialism or popular support. It may indeed prove that attempting to hold an empire beyond its time is a principal threatm to the security of the imperialists. This may be particularly the case when anachronistic efforts are made to expandm an empire at the very time when empires are withering away.

The Soviet empire is now beginning to confront the tribulations which have plagued and ultimately destroyed all others. Its destruction is certainly not going to occur tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow, but unless the whole character of our age is suddenly transformed, which is unlikely, all those peoples from the Urkainians and Poles to the Uzbeks and Kirgiz, are sooner or later going to demand the same right of self-determination and self-government which most other peoples have now obtained and which the Soviet government itself is vociferously demanding for Palestinians and black South Africans.

Poland and Afghanistan are the latest symptoms of the lava seething not too far below the imperial crust. The high-spirited Poles, all the more attached to independence because they were so long denied it, have accommodated themselves reluctantly to overwhelming alien power. Now, however, not the "reactionaries" but the workers, Marx's revered proletariat, have been rebelling, with admirable adroitness and prudence, ostensibly against abusesm of the system, but in fact against the systemm of undiluted party, that is, Russian domination. The Soviets are in this case prisoners of their own doctrine. They could of course repress the "dissidence" by force, but what would be the effect on the world, on their own population, of a war waged against Polish workers?

Afghanistan, as has been pointed out, may prove to be the Soviet Vietnam -- not in the sense that the Soviet people would or could conceivalby force disengagemant, as the American people did, but that it might perhaps be the turning point, like the British adventure in South Africa in 1900 or the American in Indo-China, marking the fact that the empire has at least overextended itself beyond its power, given all the internal and external factors, to sustain for very long.

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Afghanistan will not be easily relinquished, if at all no matter what the cost. Holding Poland is vital, as Stalin and his successors have seen it, to the maintenance of the Soviet position in Europe. Nevertheless, the situation in these two countries may be a signal that Soviet expansionism, which has been agitating the West so much for 35 years, may at last be encountering insurmountable forces, and that the 1980s may turn out to be a period in which the Soviets are obliged, not wholly successfully, to concentrate on holding on frantically to what they already have.

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